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14x2. The Hand of Fear
Writers: Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Director: Lennie Mayne
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: When the Doctor and Sarah find themselves in the middle of a detonation site in a quarry, Sarah accidentally makes contact with the long-buried hand of Eldrad, an alien from the planet Kastria. Eldrad's consciousness drives Sarah to undertake a dangerous procedure in a nuclear power plant to resurrect Eldrad, after which she and the Doctor take Eldrad back to Kastria. There they discover that Eldrad's story of betrayal by his/her own people is a lie: Eldrad in fact destroyed the barriers that protected Kastria from damaging winds in rage over being kept out of power.

Review: I mentioned in my "Pyramids of Mars" review that perhaps I just don't instinctively respond to the Holmes/Hinchcliffe stories the way most Who fans seem to, and I still think that might be the case. However, recently I've also noticed a specific recurring problem, at least in my view: generally well-written and entertaining stories undercut by abrupt and poorly conceived resolutions. "The Hand of Fear" unfortunately suffers from the same flaw.

Structurally, the script is actually quite creative in how it moves from one setting to another. For the first half-hour or so, it's an engaging sci-fi mystery, following along with the Doctor as he tries to figure out where the hand came from and what's happening to Sarah. It's an anachronistic comparision, of course, but the scene in which the Doctor returns to the quarry and ponders the hand's origins reminded me of The X-Files at its best. After that, the story shifts to a "crisis control" plot where a series of emergencies arise at the nuclear power complex, with Sarah, Dr. Carter, and Driscoll variously under Eldrad's control and the possibility of a nuclear explosion looming. Finally, the time travelers return to Kastria where they explore the remnants of Eldrad's society and learn that he/she was not such an innocent victim after all. All of this is handled seamlessly, managing to move between what are fairly loosely connected plot points and different styles of storytelling without seeming forced or unwieldy.

The story of Eldrad and Kastria is rather thin in some ways: Eldrad built the barriers, then destroyed them and doomed his people when they didn't reward him with the power he thought he deserved. But the script does a reasonable job keeping it interesting. The phrase "Eldrad must live!" could have easily become an unintentionally campy joke (for those of you who are Ed Wood enthusiasts, think "Pull the string!"), but it works as a tagline to indicate when someone is under Eldrad's control and carries a slightly disturbing quality. Eldrad also earns some sympathy at first -- the Doctor speculates that perhaps whatever is causing the situation at the nuclear plant is simply confused and afraid -- and the beginning scene on Kastria is vague enough that we can actually believe the female Eldrad's story of betrayal by her own people. The depth of Eldrad's psychosis is revealed when we get to Kastria and find that the Kastrians destroyed their own "race banks" rather than risk Eldrad returning and becoming king of a resurrected society. The projection of the dead Kastrian King Rokon strikes the appropriately ironic note, declaring "Hail Eldrad, king . . . of nothing."

But then, as Graham Chapman might say, it just gets silly.

It seems like the natural conclusion, at this point in the story, would be for the Doctor and Sarah to leave Eldrad behind, powerless and alone on a desolate Kastria, left to ponder his failings and past sins. Instead, Eldrad starts raving about conquering Earth in order to build a new empire, demands his ring back, runs around like a lunatic, and gets tripped by the Doctor and Sarah and falls off a cliff. It's possible that the Doctor saw Eldrad as an imminent threat given that he possesses some sort of psychokinetic powers and wasn't exactly displaying self-restraint, but when coupled with an earlier scene in which Sarah arguably sets Eldrad up to be ambushed by the armed Professor Watson before it was even 100% certain that Eldrad was a villain, the Doctor and Sarah are, as in "The Brain of Morbius," portrayed in a more morally ambiguous light than the script likely intends. (Neither scene, admittedly, is entirely clear on what the Doctor and/or Sarah are thinking, but that itself is part of the problem.) On the other hand, the Doctor seems to say later that he doubts Eldrad is actually dead, so perhaps he simply meant to trap Eldrad. But in that case, throwing the ring -- a major source of Eldrad's power -- over the cliff as well seems like a spectacularly bad idea. Why leave it somewhere that a re-resurrected Eldrad might one day find it? Either way, this isn't much of an ending, and since Eldrad's power is determined by writer fiat anyway, they could have found a way to just leave him trapped on Kastria instead of ending it with a pointless chase scene like this.

Fortunately, the script finds its footing again with Sarah's departure. Fed up with what she sees as the Doctor's inattentiveness and the constant dangers of time travel, she declares that she wants to go home. But, when it becomes clear that she does actually have to leave because the Doctor has to return to Gallifrey, her tone changes: she doesn't actually want her adventures with the Doctor to end, and the two of them are genuinely sad to part company. "The Hand of Fear" effectively emphasizes their friendship throughout, from the Doctor's obvious regret at having to incapacitate her in the nuclear power core to the later scene in which each of them admits to worrying about the other. Baker and Sladen play this effectively, and it's easy to believe that they will, as they say at the end, meet again some day (as, incidentally, they apparently will on the new series next year). The script also hits the right note by having the Doctor successfully return her to near-future England but miss her actual home by a considerable degree. "He blew it!" Sarah laments to a dog who sits nearby after the TARDIS demateralizes.

I don't mean to sound too "down" on this era of Doctor Who: it's been more consistently intelligent and entertaining than the 1960s serials or any Pertwee season other than his first, but for some reason the writers don't always seem to be putting much thought into the way they resolve these stories and the potential ramifications thereof. Hopefully that will change as we enter the home stretch of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era.

Other notes:

- Professor Watson is given a little more depth than your average Doctor Who guest character. He's not one of the series' most memorable, but the scene in which he calls his wife and speaks to her for what he knows might be the last time (without letting on the danger) and his later bewilderment after the Doctor, Sarah, and Eldrad have left both work well.

- In the "obvious bogus science" department, unless they were further from the plant than it appeared, the notion of Watson, Sarah, and the others ducking behind a car to shield themselves from a nuclear blast seems kind of ridiculous.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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